Fred Hampton, the young chairman of the Illinois Black Panthers, makes a brief appearance in The Trial of the Chicago 7 when he leans over the barrier between the public gallery and the defendants’ table to talk to Bobby Seale.
In Judas and the Black Messiah, Hampton’s role in the Panthers is the core element of the drama and he moves into centre stage.
In Shaka King’s compelling cinematic account, Hampton was the leader that the Panthers most needed, seeking to form an early rainbow coalition of America’s impoverished and downtrodden, be they black, Hispanic or poor whites. The movie suggests strongly that it was this challenge from Hampton in Chicago in 1969 that caused FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, most immediate concern. So Hampton became a target of the FBI’s COINTELPRO and an informer was inserted in the Illinois Panthers’ senior ranks.
COINTELPRO was an FBI operation designed to counter groups which the Bureau deemed subversive or threatening to US National Security. The Vietnam War was raging and anti-war groups were a particular target, along with the Communist Party (United States of America), the Weathermen (later the Weather Underground) and the Black Panthers. Not all of the FBI’s tactics were legal: burglary; perjury, harassment and smear were all tricks of the trade. However, the times were indeed dangerous, even deadly. The Weathermen were based on a line from Bob Dylan’s song, ‘Subterranean Homesick Blues’: ‘You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows’. Weathermen were accomplished, lethal bombers and college campuses a favourite target.
Black Power was an extraordinary phenomenon born of an extraordinary legacy of poverty, racism and neglect of African-American communities, especially in America’s inner cities, which were often termed ghettos: Harlem in NYC; Watts in LA; Roxbury in Boston and the South Side of Chicago.
Black Power was reflected in American culture across the board from books and music to poster art and the pulpit: from Motown to Malcolm X. If there was a bible for the Black Power movement, it would be Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice. Cleaver fled to Algeria to escape prosecution, but it was a fascinating irony, when he eventually returned to the US, he took a marked turn to the right and ended his political days as a Republican.
But in Chicago of the year 1969, racial tensions were manifest following the assassinations of Dr Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy (Democrat, New York) and hard upon the previous summer’s chaos of the Democratic National Convention. The Days of Rage had receded but not disappeared.
Daniel Kaluuya is a powerful presence as Hampton, displaying his eloquence in any number of settings. The traitor, Bill O’Neal (Lakeith Stanfield), is similarly impressive. Both actors dominate the film. Supporting characters include Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback), Hampton’s romantic partner and dedicated comrade. Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) is a disarming FBI agent, convinced of his work but shaken at times by the virulent contempt of his boss, Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), towards African- Americans. Indeed, Sheen delivers a version of Hoover that makes the FBI director seem more like a Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
A fascinating element in the film is that there is actual vision of the real Bill O’Neal, who argues his case for what he did from a somewhat confused perspective. Fascinating too, is the fact that O’Neal, a minor Chicago car thief, actually originally impersonated an FBI agent, which is what gave the Bureau an opening to offer him the alternative: jail or betrayal. The means to secure close proximity to the target, Fred Hampton, is quintessentially American: an automobile, as O’Neal becomes the chairman’s driver.
The Black Panthers were militant and openly so. Their inspirational figure, Huey Newton (ultimately shot dead by a rival black radical), who features prominently in the background in a poster at the Panther offices, argued the revolutionary nature of their cause. They embraced guns defiantly, turning the Second Amendment to a purpose not seen since Reconstruction at the end of the Civil War and the depredations of the Klan against newly freed black communities. The Panthers argued stridently that they defended black neighbourhoods from their respective police departments, routinely insulted as ‘Pigs’, who were regarded as akin to an occupying army in the ghettos.
If there was a moment that symbolised the assertiveness of the Panthers, born in Oakland, California, it was to be found in their arrival in Sacramento, laden with guns, to challenge then Governor Ronald Reagan. The times, indeed, seemed revolutionary, and the Black Panthers were in the foreground. No question, the Panthers did have effective social programs for black communities, especially their breakfast programs for school kids. But they were never far from confrontation with authority and various police departments, including in Chicago, rose to the challenge with maximum, unbridled force. The Panthers were sometimes far from angels and the film tends to gloss over flaws, in pursuit of an unimpeachable narrative, based on a moral imperative which redresses historic injustices.
This is the background to the bloodshed in Judas and the Black Messiah. As the killings of Fred Hampton and his fellow Panthers, at the hands of the Chicago Police, are matters of public record, there is no need to offer potential viewers a spoiler alert. The question is: why did such carnage happen? The cultural clash between the Panthers and Mayor Daley’s police could not have been sharper. It was not only a matter of race and politics, it was generational. And the FBI fuelled the fire.
Like many police agents inserted into radical groups during the 1960s in America, the agent soon morphed into an agent provocateur.
Bill O’Neal was no exception and the film depicts the FBI informer as urging the Illinois Panthers to greater violence.
While the end is clear, the movie develops tensions in a carefully constructed way. The characters are always on edge but for very different reasons. Courtesy of some outstanding performances, Shaka King delivers a film that graphically communicates the nature of the America in which the Black Panthers constituted a centrifugal political and social force which both responded to and brought on a terrible reaction.
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Judas and the Black Messiah, directed by Shaka King
HBO Max 2021, 2hrs 6 mins
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